Andrew Bowie is Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and a Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party.
“The British constitution is a mess.” So declared my Politics lecturer in 2012, a German who simply could not understand our keenness to retain an uncodified set of rules and guidelines as our preferred method for governing a modern, 21st-century state.
Least of all could he understand the constitutional anomaly that was England and the English. Without a Parliament of its own, the largest and by far wealthiest part of our United Kingdom, seemingly allowed its laws to be determined by the votes of MPs who represented parts of the country where those laws would, seemingly, not apply.
This “West Lothian Question”, a phrase coined by Enoch Powell in 1977 after the anti-devolution Labour MP, Tam Dalyell, who hailed from that constituency, repeatedly raised the issue of whether MPs from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales should be able to vote on issues that were exclusively English.
It took until 2015 for the Cameron CGovernment to introduce measures designed to prevent MPs representing constituencies out-with England having a vote on so called “English Only Laws”. And so English Votes for English Laws (‘EVEL’) was born.
And it is, in my opinion, the most ill-conceived, wrongheaded and damaging measure ever passed by any Government in modern times, coming a close second to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. That is was introduced and championed by my Party, the Conservative and Unionist Party, is frankly mind boggling.
The argument that devolution was new and therefore needed some balancing so as to protect English laws from undue influence from those ‘rebellious Scots’ (or indeed, the Welsh or Northern Irish) is nonsense. Devolution has existed in the modern United Kingdom for far more years than it has not – from 1922 to 1972, no steps were taken to deprive Northern Irish MPs of their right to vote on areas that were seen to be devolved, even when those MPs deprived Labour of working majorities.
And why? In the words of then Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, Peter Thorneycroft, “every member of the House of Commons is equal to every other member of the House of Commons.”
That, I firmly believe. In our sovereign parliament of the United Kingdom, we representatives, drawn from across the whole of our United Kingdom are equal and entitled to vote on every piece of legislation placed in front of us.
EVEL created two tier of MP. As a Scot and a Unionist I found it grossly offensive to be informed I could not vote at certain stages of bills on education or health for example. For, as a Unionist, I care just as much about the welfare, health and education of people in Aldershot as I do about Aberdeen.
Now, of course I have heard the arguments that EVEL does not in fact prevent any MP from voting on a bill before the house, only that it gives English members the ability to veto certain legislation. But that is simply not true in practice- Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs do not have their votes counted at stages of a bill’s progress through the House. Therefore, my ability to influence legislation is taken away from me and other colleagues – in our sovereign parliament, where we are equal.
And, as has been pointed out by constitutional experts like Vernon Bogdanor, even this ability to veto poses a huge issue for governments in future that may command a majority across the UK, but not in England…it would be deadlocked, having its domestic legislation vetoed by an English dominated opposition – unable to pass legislation that affects the citizens of its largest constituent part!
And finally, whisper it, and don’t tell the Nats…but there is no such thing as ‘English Only Laws’. Thanks to Barnett consequentials, almost every single measure debated and voted on has financial implications for areas that appear, on the surface, to be wholly devolved. If we were, for example, to increase or indeed, decrease funding for something as innocuous and seemingly wholly ‘England Only’ as school sport funding, or smart motorways, the ‘block grant’ would increase or decrease by the amount determined by the Barnett Formula.
And as almost every law has some sort of financial impact, there is hardly anything that comes before us that does not affect the devolved administrations ability to spend more, or less, on their priorities.
Therefore EVEL is bad law. It doesn’t work and causes more problems than it solves. Let’s have more devolution in England – to our regions and localities. But let us not divide even further down national lines.
We are a proudly Unionist Party. This Prime Minister a proud Unionist. His instincts that we are all equal servants of our United Kingdom, in our sovereign Parliament of this United Kingdom are the right ones. He is right to move to revoke English Votes for English Laws and we, in supporting him, should declare that we will have no truck with separatism, nationalism and division.
And that we, Conservatives, support our Government’s agenda for our one nation – be that for the people of Cornwall or Caithness.